Lighting Labor's Fire | The Nation


Lighting Labor's Fire

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7. Push the Mail Ballot

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...
Thomas Geoghegan
Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer and author. His most recent book is Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the...

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The biggest disaster for labor, and every labor cause (including labor law reform), is that the vast, vast majority of hourly workers, both women and men, simply don't vote at all. This is not just a matter of apathy and alienation: In the new American economy, with working mothers, suburban sprawl and two-hour-a-day commutes, many Americans have a workday that simply does not give them a fair or equal shot at getting to the polls. In a few states, such voters can get an absentee ballot, but that takes foresight and planning that most of us lack.

So if people can't get to the polls, why not bring the polls to the people? By that we mean: Campaign for an Oregon-type mail ballot, sent to the home of every registered voter. When Oregon went to the mail ballot, it already had liberal absentee voting rules and, as a result, already had the highest voting rate in the nation. With the mail ballot, the voting rate shot up by 10-25 percent in some elections. The new voters? Hourly workers, the elderly--in other words, labor's constituency. As we mobilize more of these "quasi" members, this puts pressure on politicians to raise the minimum wage, spend more on childcare, etc., and generally raise working standards. By the way, in the 2002 election, Oregon had a turnout rate of 65 percent, almost equal to Minnesota's and South Dakota's, among the highest in the nation. Now we can turn, finally, to the subject of labor law reform.

8. For God's Sake, Come Up With a Labor
Law Reform Americans Can Understand


Sure, we support a ban on striker replacement. Or repeal of Taft-Hartley's ban on secondary boycotts. (At one time these strikes allowed labor to shut down a whole industry, or an area like an airport.) But reforms like this won't win many hearts and minds. Indeed, how many people even understand what is being discussed? Let's assume there will be no labor law reform for now. At least let's come up with a form of it that ordinary people will understand and be willing, eventually, to fight for: Make the right to join a union a civil right, by adding such a right to those protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

The struggle for such an amendment would finally bring the "rights revolution" of the 1960s and '70s to the labor movement. Part of the appeal would be to American individualism: "We don't care if you join a union or not, but you should be able to put on a union button without being fired." And if we were to succeed in making the right to join a union a civil right under the act, anyone who is fired could go not just to the National Labor Relations Board, where such cases usually disappear without a trace, but directly to federal court. Just as in Title VII cases, plaintiffs could receive compensatory damages, punitive damages, preliminary injunctions, even temporary restraining orders--and, yes, payment of their legal fees. And with a chance of getting their fees paid, it would be a lot easier for the progressive lawyers of America to join the labor movement on the barricades.

No, it will not pass now, but neither did McCain-Feingold, at first. But it was a bill that, for all its faults, was at least a vehicle for a reform movement. Amending the Civil Rights Act will not solve everything. But at least people would understand it. Women's groups, civil rights groups and others can organize around such a bill as they cannot organize around, say, striker replacement. The point is to frame a reform that in itself helps to build a grassroots movement.

* * *

Of course, it may be that even all the new ideas in the world can't bring back the labor movement. But let's suppose the chances are as bleak as one in four. If it were the bottom of the ninth, two out, our side losing, with a .250 hitter coming up, would our side say, "What's the point--the chances of a hit are only one in four"? In the midpoint of the Bush era, we can at least send up a few .250 hitters to the plate.

We would love to see the AFL-CIO take up the reforms we've proposed. But ultimately, the labor movement is too important to be left to the AFL-CIO, however much we may admire John Sweeney and his administration. It's up to all of us, not just to them, to bring the labor movement back.

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